Aims: To investigate the impact of maternal childhood abuse on toddlers’ behaviour and assess the potential mediation of maternal mental distress for this pathway.
Methods: This study was based on the Norwegian Mother and Child Cohort Study, conducted by the Norwegian Institute of Public Health. The study sample consisted of 25,452 children and their mothers. Maternal childhood abuse was investigated as a potential predictor for child externalizing behaviour at 36 months of age. Maternal mental distress at child age 18 months was assessed as a potential mediator. Hierarchical linear regressions were used for analyses.
Results: Childhood emotional abuse alone was reported by 8.3% of the mothers and physical and/or sexual abuse by 8.9%. Mothers with childhood abuse experiences were younger, less educated, more at risk for adult abuse and mental distress, and fewer were married or lived with a partner compared with women not reporting childhood abuse. Children of mothers with childhood abuse experiences showed significantly more externalizing behaviour even after adjusting for maternal age, education, single motherhood, gender and adult abuse experiences. When maternal mental health was entered into the model, the associations remained statistically significant, but were substantially attenuated.
Conclusions: Maternal childhood abuse consistently predicted increased externalizing behaviour in the offspring, and this study suggests that childhood abuse impacts subsequent generations. Multiple pathways are possible, but this study identified increased maternal mental distress as a possible pathway between maternal childhood abuse and increased externalizing behaviour in the offspring.